Martin S. Cohen
Given the prominence of prayer in traditional Jewish life, it is surprising to note how few prayers the Torah actually ordains be recited by the pious as part of their ongoing effort to foster a relationship with the Divine. Indeed, some of the most famous of all Jewish prayers that do have their origin in Scripture are not presented as liturgical texts in that context at all. (The Shema, for example, the confession of faith par excellence which rabbinic tradition ordains be recited twice daily, appears in the Bible as part of a larger literary unit with no indication that it is intended to be featured prominently in the prayer lives of the faithful.) Other prayer texts are presented in situ as features of an ongoing narrative—for example, the prayer of Damesek Eliezer that he find a wife for his master’s son (Genesis 24:12–14) or Moses’ prayer that Miriam be healed of her skin disease (Numbers 12:13)—have not come to be a part of the fixed Jewish liturgical tradition. And still others, like the prayer ordained for recitation by farmers presenting their first fruits at the sanctuary (Deuteronomy 26:3–10), are presented as liturgical texts to be recited on a specific occasion, but with no hint that they may licitly be recited in circumstances other than the ones specifically ordained by Scripture.
In its own category, however, is the text found at Numbers 6:24–27 and specifically not part of any ongoing narrative. There, Scripture presents God as instructing Moses formally to inform his brother Aaron and the latter’s sons that, in blessing the Israelites, they may not use words of their own devising but must use the specific formula provided. Perhaps this is meant as an after-the-fact response to the story presented at Leviticus 9:22 in which Aaron, following the elaborate investiture ceremony of his sons as priests, is depicted as offering a blessing of his own devising. That text reads laconically that “Aaron then raised his hand toward the people and blessed them,” but without giving the text of his apparently off-the-cuff effort. Are we to understand, then, that God—eager to prevent any more extemporized prayer on the part of a priesthood that is intended to be highly regulated—is responding to Aaron’s spontaneous blessing with a clear statement that future efforts to bless the people meaningfully and substantively must henceforth use a pre-ordained formula? Certainly, one could read the text that way!
But no amount of careful scriptural study would lead any reader to imagine how this text, the recitation of which is unambiguously presented in Numbers specifically as a priestly prerogative, would eventually become a hallmark of Jewish liturgical usage regularly recited in non-priestly contexts by Jews other than the descendants of Aaron, both as part of synagogue worship and in other contexts as well. And yet the fifteen words of the so-called Priestly Blessing, called Birkat Kohanim in Hebrew, have indeed become one of the most often-cited and recited Jewish prayer formularies, its use not restricted even in the most punctiliously observant circles to Aaron’s priestly descendants.
The volume you are holding in your hands presents the efforts of twenty-three authors to explicate this enigmatic text. They are different in many ways, our authors, but they are united in terms of the estimation in which they hold the ancient idea that the ideal way to delve into Jewishness itself is through the informed, creative, and intellectually rigorous study of its most sacred texts. As you will see, they take many different approaches to the text of Birkat Kohanim. Some focus their thinking on the text as a feature of later liturgy, while others work primarily on the text as part of the biblical heritage of Israel. Still others choose to analyze the text primarily through a rabbinic lens, taking later rabbinic approaches as the basis for their interpretive efforts. Taken all together, these essays will provide readers with a window into a text that, although it could hardly be more brief in terms of its word-count, has evolved into one of the truly foundational texts of Jewish liturgy—and, indeed, of Jewish life. And that, surely, will be its own reward for all who wish to understand Judaism on its own merits, and through the contemplation of its most basic texts.
Unless otherwise indicated, all translations here are the authors’ own work; biblical translations referencing “NJPS” refer to the complete translation of Scripture published under the title Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures by the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia in 1985.
I am grateful to all of our authors for their willingness to participate in this project. And, of course, I am equally grateful to David Birnbaum and Benjamin Blech, the other senior editors of the Mesorah Matrix series, and to Saul J. Berman, our associate editor. And, of course, I am grateful to you, our readers, as well; it is your enthusiasm for this project, and particularly your willingness to support our effort to revitalize the essay as a premiere vehicle of sophisticated, thoughtful Jewish expression, that has encouraged us in our efforts and given us the confidence to persevere with this landmark project. I am grateful to you all.
In closing, I wish to acknowledge the men and women of the Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn, New York, whom I am privileged to serve as their spiritual leader. Understanding that part and parcel of my sense of what it means for me personally to be a rabbi is writing (as well as editing and publishing the work of others), my congregants have come to accept these complicated book projects I keep taking on as part of who I am and what I do. For their solicitude and their support, I feel deeply beholden and very, very grateful.
Martin S. Cohen
Roslyn, New York
June 19, 2015 / 2 Tammuz 5775